01/26/2010 12:00AM

Fair Grounds to reduce purses

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Faced with sharply declining handle, Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans on Thursday announced cuts to both its overnight purse structure and stakes program.

Beginning on Sunday, overnight purses will be reduced by 9 percent, according to a Fair Grounds press release. Track president Austin Miller said in the release that the reduced overnight purses would remain in effect during the track's final 34 racing days.

The purses of 12 stakes races also were cut, with the New Orleans Handicap and the Mervin Muniz Handicap taking the biggest trims, both reduced from $500,000 to $400,000. Four more stakes, the Fair Grounds Handicap, the Mineshaft Handicap, the Bayou Handicap, and the Duncan Kenner Stakes, were cut to $100,000 from $125,000. Six other $75,000 stakes were reduced to $60,000.

Fair Grounds, a Churchill Downs Inc.-owned track, had been able to maintain its announced 2009-2010 purse structure thanks to revenue from ontrack slot machines, but vice president and general manager Eric Halstrom said in the release that "gaming and parimutuel businesses have been slower than anticipated."

According to figures from the Louisiana Racing Commission, total average daily handle at Fair Grounds fell 31.6 percent from November and December 2008 to the corresponding period in 2009. In 2008, Fair Grounds handled $109,696,245 during 27 days of racing in those two months, for an average of $4.06 million per day. During 31 days of racing during November and December 2009, total handle was $86,201,495, an average of $2,780,693 per day.

"The economic downturn across the country as well as the all-time record rainfall in December in New Orleans has negatively affected our business, and we were left with no choice but to take this action," Halstrom said in the release.